Prototyping for Augmented Reality

Our early storyboards didn’t work.

As designers, we’re no strangers to prototyping. It’s the easiest way to get your point across to collaborators and it allows for fast iteration. But new problems arise when you’re working in the VR/AR space. How do you prototype a virtual experience?

To help us tackle our prototyping problem, we met with Alan Pan—a former Moment designer that now designs virtual experiences for YouVisit—who has practical experience designing for VR. Some things Alan helped remind us of—like using cues that people are familiar with to help them navigate virtual space—felt totally intuitive and on-point. For example, use a door to represent the option to transport to another room.

Alan also pointed out that trying to prototype in 2-D for 3-D interactions just doesn’t work. A sketch or a drawing on a storyboard will not convey the issues you need to address when the sketch needs to translate a virtual experience.

Working in 3-D is complicated—there are more sight lines and interaction possibilities. In addition, VR is very new. Most of us can comfortably evaluate an app or a piece of software because we work on 2-D screens all day, even micro interactions are well understood. But what do you do when the whole medium is new terrain?

“I’m talking about __________. What are you talking about?”

Another frustrating meeting. It’s hard to understand 3-D concepts with drawings.

This part could also be called, “So you want to design something for virtual reality…” At this point we had a general idea of what our product should do, but what to actually make still eluded us.

Our group frequently ran into trouble when brainstorming and evaluating ideas together. The confusion cycle went something like this: First we’d talk about what the technology could do and describe an educational activity. We would all nod our heads, eager to get down to making something. Then we would individually draw sketches to storyboard how the product would work.

But when we came back together to discuss the drawings, we usually hit a wall.

“Wait, were you thinking students would build actual windmills?”
“Oh, were you thinking they wouldn’t?”
“I thought we would see the energy the windmills produce.”
“Yeah, see—it would change color.”
“Why color? Why not a number?

We were at a loss of how to evaluate our ideas.

Props to the Rescue

We build all the virtual elements out of orange poster board.

In the middle of our struggle, one of our advisors suggested we try acting out the interactions we were trying to design. We decided to build all the parts of our prototype in orange paper to serve as props (and to signify a virtual object, as opposed to actual object) and we performed the roles of teachers and students using the product. To further help clarify things, we made a script and a realistic lesson plan for our target age group.

Ian and Daniel pretend to be 10-year-olds using our product in a classroom activity.

Then we photographed each moment of the activity and put the pictures into a storyboard. The storyboard read like a comic, with headings and narration to make it clear what was happening.

Daniel looking at our improved storyboard.

With all the virtual components represented in orange paper it was easier to understand what the user would experience. Once we understood the activity at this level, we could get to the bigger questions we needed to discuss.

Does the technology add to the learning and lesson? Should we build in more collaboration components? Do we have the right emphasis on making? Does that 3-D model provide context for the activity?

Confusion eliminated, we could agree on the best ideas and get down to making a prototype. We hope to build a demo that people can try out at our final presentation as well as a concept video that shows what is possible in a classroom while using our product. Stay tuned…

Andrea Everman, Sarah Mitrano, Ian Morrow, and Daniel Park are interns at Moment in New York. Sarah is a recent graduate of Washington University with a BFA in communication design; Daniel is a junior at Parsons pursuing a BBA in strategic design and management; and Ian and Andrea are pursuing MDes degrees at the IIT Institute of Design. They’re all currently exploring the intersection of mixed reality and children’s education. You can follow the team’s progress this summer on Momentary Exploration.

UPDATE: The Moment summer 2016 intern project is live here.